Riyadh: Friday 20th July 2012
Ramadan Kareem to you all.
Today is the first day of the Holy month of Ramadan, the beginning of a month of fasting throughout the Islamic world. In my experience of the commencement of the Holy Month, Western newspapers and Magazines often seek to employ a Muslim journalist to explain Ramadan and why he or she will be fasting. Certain questions will be addressed, which answer many western misconceptions, such as, is the Ramadan fast detrimental to health? The answer appears to be that, properly observed, fasting can be beneficial. Not withstanding this I predict over the next fortnight various articles will be printed looking at the effect of fasting upon Muslim participants in the forthcoming Olympic Games. After all, the Muslim participants will be required to rise before dawn, eat and drink for the day before sunrise and abstain until sunset. Team dietitians will have their work cut out.
This is my fourth Ramadan in the Middle East and seventh in an Islamic country (I lived three years of my childhood in Malaysia), and I am very struck by the sense of community and goodness which comes from this time of year. It is not merely the daytime abstinence from food, drink and tobacco. Muslims try extra hard to behave with kindness and charity toward others during the Holy Month and the privations, particularly when Ramadan falls during the summer months, can be real.
While there are many Muslims living and working in the west, most westerners will be completely untouched by the Holy Month and indeed, in many cases, will be completely unaware of it. Similarly, in many Islamic countries, it is quite possible to live life as though there is no fasting at all.
In Saudi Arabia this it is different. The consumption of anything during daylight hours is strictly prohibited. Supermarkets still open, food and water can still be bought, but the consumption of these in public areas will cause grave offence and is strictly policed. To many of my colleagues, past and present, this is a hot topic of conversation at this time of year. Why, many argue, should Christians be required to observe restrictions upon their freedoms when they are not themselves fasting.
While the means of expressing this argument is frequently petty, revolving around provision of smoking areas or whether one should be allowed a bottle of water or a coffee, the logic, itself can be compelling. Muslims, having been required to rise before dawn, to eat before the sun rises, come to work late and leave early, sleeping for much of the afternoon before breaking the fast at Iftar banquets once the sun has set.
Obliged during working hours, to observe the same restrictions, non-Muslims do not enjoy the same shortened working day (although in practice, many do reduce their hours of work) and struggle, in consequence, to see the merits of fasting. This is not merely confined to Christians. I have met Muslims who argue that the fast is devalued by forcing it on those for whom it is not a spiritual rite and who often see the lavish Iftar banquets with which Saudi’s will break the fast each night, as counter to the humble austerity at the heart of the Holy Month. Certainly, as a westerner, it can be tempting to note that the sacrifice of European Muslims, obliged rise even earlier and feast even later and to carry out their daytime fast amid conspicuous unrelenting consumption which in no way slows for their benefit, is all the greater.
The argument in its simplest form goes thus: If you maintain your fast as a devotion to God, while around you the temptations of consumption are visible, you are tested more and come closer to God in consequence. Indeed, if you are tempted and do not relent, all the better, for, it is by facing the temptation and injustice of life that we prove to God, our devotion. As Tennyson notes in In Memoriam,“There lives more faith in honest doubt than exists in half the creeds.”
This is the logic of western rationalism, upon which are built our notions of fairness and sacrifice. But crucially, it is also the logic of a particularly Christian understanding of the world. It is the logic of the Book of Job, in which God and the devil experiment by heaping misfortune on a good and pius man, removing the relationship between righteousness and reward.
Job is tested beyond any measure of fairness and is seen to challenge God as to why he should be so mistreated.
It is, as Richard Holloway noted during his recent radio series, Honest Doubt, the first example we have of faithful doubt, forming part of the inevitable journey of the righteous. It is foundation of the understanding that bad things sometimes happen to good people, and creates the very Christian idea that knowledge and doubt are not counter to, but form part of faith. Was it not Jesus, himself, who asked, “Lord, why have you forsaken me?”
In a world without doubt there is no need for faith. We know that spring will follow winter, that one and one is equal to two and that we will inevitably die. We require no faith; no belief for these things. Our own lived experience and the empirical evidence of the ages provide us certainty that these things are the case. But we do not know that there is a God, and that God sees us whole and entire. We do not know that there is a heaven and a hell or that a good and righteously led life will be rewarded after the grave. We might hope for these things, we might doubt them. But Job’s example shows us that wishing for, or doubting Gods truth and benevolence are not the enemy of faith, but its parents. By believing, without, knowledge, and sometimes in the face of temptation, we show greater faith.
It is rare to see so clearly an ethical theological difference played out between the great faiths as is the case here. This profoundly Christian notion that faith enhanced by facing down temptation is diametrically opposed to the community notions articulated by compulsory abstinence.
Our sensibilities ignore the communitarian form that Ramadan observance takes, in Riyadh. During the past week, across Riyadh, large tents have sprung up on the road, adjacent to mosques. These ‘Iftar tents’ are where the breaking of the fast will take place. All are welcome, and fast observance or a Muslim faith are not necessary.
Moreover, these are great social occasions, involving all the families of the neighbourhood. Riyadh, to an outsider, can seem a profoundly unfriendly place. It’s houses are all placed inside high walls. It may be that the month-long series of communal Iftar banquets, represents the majority of the community interaction between Riyadh’s neighbours during the year.
The core tenet of Islam is submission to the teachings and the word of God. This is a fundamental departure from the Christian understanding of faith expressed in Job. In Islam, there is far less room for honest doubt informing honest faith. To a Christian, it seems logical to test, to talk, even to shout at God, to seek answers and understanding, “Why have you forsaken me?!” it is this fundamental principle which forms the basis of the Christian understanding of prayer and the Protestant notion of the individuals relationship with the word of God as expressed through constant interaction with the bible.
But in Riyadh, we are faced with an altogether different way of thinking; one which challenges our long-established notions. Islam demands observance and disciplined faith. There is no similar latitude granted to question or doubt, no similar idea that through doubt one can find a greater understanding of God. On the contrary, to a Muslim, the truth lies in the words of the Quran. It is a physical and mental act of will to observe the teachings contained therein. God has left us with a personal constitution for living.
Taken to its logical conclusion, therefore, there is little need for honest doubt. Far from informing faith, honest doubt is emblematic of a failure to observe the teachings of the Quran.
And thus, while I would not choose to forsake coffee and water during working hours, I will not complain in the doing so. For my time in Riyadh and the slightly better understanding of ideas of faith to which I have been exposed, have afforded me a better understanding of my own faith, and ironically brought me closer to the God, who I had long ago thought I had forsaken.